How Entrepreneurs Bloom in Places Like New Orleans

Tim Williamson of Idea Village

It’s time the rest of the country joins the start-up era.

During the dotcom boom years we used to compare Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to gold miners in the Gold Rush. But now, face it, the digital Gold Rush has gone mainstream. The West and East Coasts — Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, Seattle, Portland — have solidified into the business establishment. Which means the frontier for really gutsy startups is far outside these major hubs, places where it still feels like the Wild West and resources are hard to come by.

Hold this thought: “Forty-seven states were fighting over 25% of all venture funding last year,” according to Steve Case, AOL co-founder, investor and author of “The Third Wave.”

Which is what brought me to New Orleans, where you could say that the city itself is one big startup.
 Detroit gets the press, but among the new territories for next-gen entrepreneurs, I’m particularly smitten by New Orleans. It has amazing music, food, personality and history, plus the drama of fighting its way back from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005.

So a while back I left the land of Facebook, Google and Apple to sample New Orleans Entrepreneurs Week. Attracting about 13,000 folks, it’s held in the hip, warehouse district on Fulton Street, which reminds me a lot of San Francisco’s South of Market zone back when Wired was a new magazine headquartered there. The engine behind the yearly event, dubbed NOEW, is New Orleans native son Tim Williamson, CEO of Idea Village, a nonprofit he founded to support entrepreneurs and investors.

Here’s what Tim chatted about on a warm March morning in a combined cocktail lounge/upscale bowling alley. Outside, a wave of youngish conference attendees hustled by, clutching cups of local designer coffee.

“When people like me came back home from other places, we saw that the New Orleans’ status quo of crime and [struggling] education didn’t have to be that way. As entrepreneurs, our challenge was to restart the city before we could work on founding our startups. As a result, the growing ecosystem for new companies is only about five years old in New Orleans.

“Generally, people come here to start businesses or work at startups because they already have an emotional link with the city. They have visited often, or lived here or have a spouse who grew up here.

“The way it works in this town, and likely in other rising cities, is that our prospective entrepreneurs already know a lot about their fields and have strong connections in those fields. Then they use that background to start a new business — they are looking for ways to commercialize their creativity.

“We are figuring out how to bring new and diverse people into the startup ecosystem. Mainly by listening to them when they request an event. Other regions are studying our methods.

“For instance, among the 14 summits during NOEW, there is now a public pitch competition by the Junior League of Greater New Orleans for their woman entrepreneur fellowship. And for the first time, we feature a Latino business seminar conducted completely in Spanish as a way [to provide greater impact] to participants. To include more African-Americans, we are working with Launch NOLA to conduct a pitch contest at St. Roch Community Church, which is very close to the Lower 9th Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina [and where most residents are African-American].”

I had to ask: What about some of the local stars so far — young companies with a good idea that have broken out beyond the local market?

With a pained look, like he was being forced to pick among his children, Williamson listed a couple:

  • Lucid, a marketing software company that helps national clients measure who is seeing their digital ads, has grown to about 130 employees.
  • Kickboard, a classroom management software system started by a young female math teacher who came to help after Katrina, has about 20 employees.

Later that day, after a lunch of sausage, truffle grits and sweet potato biscuits at an outdoor café in the French Quarter, I ran into a Silicon Valley entrepreneur flush with a new round of funding. Turned out he had a cousin starting a mobile fitness business in town and she was participating in this year’s NOEW. He wanted to check out the local marketplace.

But wasn’t he rather busy with his own startup back in California?” He shot me a look. “They told me I could spend a day or two during springtime in New Orleans and consider it a business trip. Are you kidding me? I said ‘where do I sign up?’ ”

“Yes,” I nodded, as a jazz tune wafted down Fulton Street, “I know what you mean.”

(A version of this post appeared in LinkedIn Pulse.)

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